Show Not Tell: The Devil is in the Details
Thanks so much for having me here! It’s always a thrill to visit other writers and to celebrate a new release! Look for my all-new novella, THE GROOM WANTED SECONDS a prequel to the Sweet and Savory Romance series, on Amazon! Now on to my thoughts on Show, Not Tell!
You probably already know that the key to showing instead of telling is details. Adding lots of details makes for a more vivid picture, which allows the reader to be in the scene, rather than distanced because of telling.
One of the big problems I see writers making is WHAT details they choose to focus on. They either choose just one type of detail, or they put in so few that it’s still hard for the reader to become invested in the scene.
The details you choose should all be about EMOTIONAL IMPACT on the character. We are affected by the things we see, smell, touch. We don’t go blithely about our business, never being reminded of that old lover or that tragic day. The things/people we come into contact with are reminders, either of where we’ve been, where we are, or where we are going. Here are some tips on making details work when you are trying to show, not tell:
1. The details you choose should have a purpose: You are trying to achieve something on the page, whether it’s to show a character’s emotional growth, or the reason they aren’t getting close emotionally, or the fear that is holding them back. What they see and focus on in a scene is used to demonstrate something important about the character, something the reader should know or be able to infer from the scene.
FROM: THE GROOM WANTED SECONDS, ebook release, October 2012:
>> He headed back to his desk. No pictures adorned the space, nothing but the tools of his job. Spreadsheets, goal lists, deadline notes, hung on the walls, sad décor accented by a computer, a stapler, a bunch of pens and pencils, and an assortment of paperclips.
He’d concentrated on all these things, nose to the grindstone, and achieved his goal. He had the job. But without Rebecca, the job was just that—a job.
Time for a new goal. He reached into his wallet and pulled out a long color photo strip, one of those silly things people did at the mall. Step into a booth, pull the curtain and immortalize four moments for two bucks.
In the photos, Rebecca laughed and mugged for the camera, and he sat beside her, as stone-faced as Mt. Rushmore. Except for the last picture. Rebecca had turned just before the camera snapped, and planted a big, noisy kiss on his cheek. A big, goofy grin had spread across his face, and the camera had frozen that moment, that smile, forever. He used to hate that picture, the way he looked so…silly.
Now he looked again and saw a man who had spent three-fourths of his time afraid to risk goofiness. Afraid to be the fool. Afraid to say the words that could change his future.
I just decided I was tired of losing out on what mattered to me.
Jeremy reached in his desk, pulled out a pushpin, then pressed it into the top of the photo strip and hung it on the cloth covered wall of his cubicle. The photo hung over the spreadsheets, the goal lists, the deadline reminders. He needed only one reminder now—picture number four.
Goofy grin and all.<<
Jeremy uses the picture as a focal point for his new goal. The picture becomes important later in the story, too, because I like to use a detail like that more than once, to get maximum emotional bang out of it.
2. Let the details make the reader feel the event/moment: A great writer will show smoke, show heat, show burning timbers, and the reader will feel the fear of a fire closing in on them. The description will invoke the fire, rather than the author saying “there was a fire,” which is telling. Even better, don’t just focus on the details of the fire, but the impact on the characters. What are they feeling? Are they trying to scramble away? Huddle in a corner? Screaming for help? Their actions, augmented by details (a hoarse throat, screams being swallowed by the flames) can create a far more powerful scene than saying “she was scared.”
FROM: THE GROOM WANTED SECONDS, ebook release, October 2012:
>>The lush green of the Esplanade lawn stretched beside her, but she kept going, looping up to the running path that ran along the sparkling blue river. A crew team rowed past her, the boat barely slicing the water as it slid along with the team’s precise, coordinated efforts.
Rock music filled her ears, and she concentrated on the rhythm playing in her MP3 player. A classic Stones tune gave way to a fast-paced Christina Aguiliera singing “Genie in a Bottle.” Sweat beaded on Rebecca’s forehead, and her lungs began to burn, but she ran on, trying to get this...tightness out of her system…
… She passed under Mass Ave., the constant Boston traffic a roar overhead. Her music player shifted to J. Lo’s “If You Had My Love,” and Rebecca’s steps slowed. The song, coupled with the reminder that this had been the path she and Jeremy had jogged a hundred times over the past year, made her steps stutter. She crossed to the grassy banks of the river and took a seat, watching the crew team and other boaters, while the music played in her ear, and she realized she couldn’t outrun anything.<<
Anyone who has run knows the feeling of your legs, your lungs, but in this instance, the running is being used to show the distance she is trying to get from her emotions and the things she isn’t facing. The songs are purposely chosen to enhance that. It shows that she is running scared, without bashing the reader over the head with that fact.
3. Use the details to focus on one specific event: When you want to show that someone is mean or nosy, recall one specific moment in history. You run into the boy who bullied you in high school, and your mind flashes to that one day outside the science lab when he tortured you until you peed your pants. That’s far more evocative and powerful than a long, running list of the bully’s past transgressions. The moment you fell in love with someone is a specific moment. It’s one you remember forever—and that’s the one that you would use to show instead of tell.
From Mistletoe Kisses with the Billionaire, available in stores December 2012:
>> Christmas had exploded in her grandmother’s house, or at least that’s what it seemed like. A thick, chubby fir tree sat in one corner, every branch lit by twinkling white bulbs or shining with an iridescent rainbow of ornaments. Gram’s Santa collection marched along the fireplace mantle, up the staircase, and down the long side table in the hallway. The usual navy throw pillows had been switched for ones in festive reds and greens, and Gram’s favorite pink afghan had been stowed, replaced by the reindeer one Aunt Betty had knit for her at least twenty years ago. Electric candles centered the windows, and bright red bows hung from the corners of the curtains. Grace paused when her gaze landed on the fireplace. “You put out the stockings.”
“Do you want me to take your bag up to your room?” Gram asked.
“Gram, why are the stockings out?”
“Because it’s Christmas. I fixed up your old room. Clean sheets on the bed and a nice thick down comforter. You’ve been globetrotting so much you might have forgotten how cold these New England winter nights can get. If you need an extra blanket, look in the closet. There’s—“
“Gram, you only put out the stockings for people who are going to be here on Christmas day.” Grace turned back to her grandmother. “Why did you hang up Hope’s, Faith’s and mine?”
Gram shrugged. Avoided Grace’s gaze. “I was thinking we’d have a nice, traditional family holiday.”
Nice and traditional meant sitting down at the table, all of them together, just like when they’d been children. Pretending they were happy, that their world was a rosy, perfect place. Grace had long ago given up on such fantasies, and had no desire to feign happiness with either of her sisters.<<
The stockings here show the hope that Gram has that the girls can be a family again, and represent everything that Grace is rallying against. She doesn’t believe in fairy tales or happy endings or family togetherness. So those stockings become a way of showing the diametric views between Gram and Grace.
4. Ask yourself a few questions: Does the detail you’ve added intensify the mood? Draw the character more fully? Make an action more powerful? Advance the plot? If it doesn’t, then consider cutting those words and instead writing ones that do what you need your words to do.
Look at how I used one article in two different points of view to show the impact on the characters:
From RETURN OF THE LAST MCKENNA, Harlequin Romance, available September 2012:
>>Brody’s gaze drifted over the articles on the wall. Several contained accolades and positive reviews for the sweets shop, a third generation business that had enjoyed decades of raves, as evidenced by some of the framed, yellowed clippings. Brody paused when he got to the last article on the right. The page was creased on one side, as if someone had kept the paper in a book for a while before posting it on the wall. A picture of a handsome young man in uniform smiled out from the corner of the article.
Shop Owner’s Brother Dies in Afghanistan
Brody didn’t have to read another word to write the ending. In an instant, he was back there, in that hot, dusty hut, praying and cursing, and praying and cursing some more, while he tried to pump life back into Andrew Spencer.
Brody could still feel the young man’s chest beneath his palms. A hard balloon, going up, going down, forced into moving by Brody’s hands, but no breath escaping his lips. Andrew’s eyes open, sightless, empty. His life ebbing one second at a time, while Brody watched, helpless and frustrated. Powerless.
No amount of time would heal that wound for Kate and her family. No amount of time would make that better. What had he been thinking? How could buying a basket ever ease the pain he’d caused Kate Spencer? What had Andrew been thinking, sending Brody here?
Brody’s hand went to the card in his pocket again, but this time, the cardboard corners formed sharp barbs.<<
>>Kate grabbed the order pad off the counter and tucked the pen in her pocket. “My eyes are on one thing and one thing only. Keeping this shop running and sticking to the plan for expansion.” Her gaze went to the article on the wall, the only one that truly mattered. To the plans she’d had, plans that seemed stalled on the ground, no matter how hard she tried to move them forward. “Because I promised I would.”<<
Good showing instead of telling is always about the details, but choosing which details to include and which to omit is the key to powerful showing. The kind that draws the reader into the story and engages her on a deeper level. Be sure the details are important, and are ones that make the book/scene more powerful, and your writing will have that powerful impact you wanted!
by Shirley Jump
Nothing like a little breakup to remind a man why he loves a woman and what an idiot he’s been. After a clunky marriage proposal, Rebecca Wilson breaks up with Jeremy Hamilton, an engineer lacking a romance chromosome. She goes away for the summer and thinks she has found true love. When she returns with a broken heart, Jeremy seizes the opportunity to convince her to give him a second chance.
But it isn’t until he brings out his wild and fun side that Jeremy sees a dim flicker of hope for a future with Rebecca. His determination drives Rebecca to break into her secret cookie stash, hoping Thin Mints can make her forget Mr. Wrong. She’s already been burned twice before—is she ready to take a second chance on love?
Link to freebie copy - available until Sunday: Amazon